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The Toronto District School Board is looking into a new policy to govern students' cellphone use.Roman Chekhovskoy/Getty Images

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

This week, the governance and policy committee of the Toronto District School Board approved a motion to develop a policy on cellphones in schools. It was a small but significant step on what is destined to be a long and arduous journey.

It has taken Canada’s largest school board four years to act on the Ontario Ministry of Education’s recommendation that cellphones be largely banished from the classroom. The sluggardly response reflects the complexity of an issue that is vexing education systems the world over; while it’s clear that cellphones pose a major challenge to education, there is little agreement on what to do about it.

“We can’t ignore this problem any longer,” says Rachel Chernos Lin, chair of the TDSB board of trustees, who introduced the motion. “What we’re doing at the moment is not working.”

In 2019, Ontario became the first province in Canada to take a stand on cellphones in schools. Amid rising concerns about cyberbullying and student distraction, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced what was glossed as a cellphone ban. In fact, the policy was more nuanced, permitting the use of phones for educational purposes only, at the discretion of teachers and with exceptions for students with special medical and educational needs.

In theory, the TDSB adopted the policy, inserting it as the 11th bullet point of provision 6.2 (a) – “Respect, Civility and Responsible Citizenship”– of the board’s code of conduct. There it remained, in impotence and obscurity.

“It’s been completely unenforced,” says Joel Westheimer, a professor of education at the University of Ottawa. “Boards have been avoiding pushback. They didn’t want parents freaking out. They took the path of least resistance.”

That path hasn’t been pretty. Most of the roughly 90 per cent of Canadian teens who now own cellphones are bringing them to school, and most of what they’re doing on them – texting, playing video games, filming each other, engaging with social media – has nothing to do with education.

Phones have entered schools at a cultural moment in which rigid disciplinary regimes are frowned upon and wide latitude is given to the supposed needs of students and demands of parents. Teachers are hamstrung. They can remind, warn and chide as much as they like, but the actual confiscation of phones is strongly discouraged; doing so, administrators warn, risks physical confrontation with students, blowback from parents or the expense of having to replace phones that students claim have been damaged in custody.

“They’re the bane of my existence,” says Willem Hart, a high-school teacher in the York Region District School Board who feels so strongly about the issue that he chose to delegate at this week’s TDSB meeting, to push for a ban with teeth. In a conversation after the meeting, Mr. Hart called the management of students’ “chronic, non-academic use” of phones the most difficult and time-consuming part of his job. “I know that the school system is moving away from discipline,” he says. “But this is severe. Kids’ success will depend on our solving this problem.”

Ms. Chernos Lin is determined to set a strong policy with clear expectations, and the winds are blowing in her favour. One of the main arguments in support of phones in schools has been nullified by the board’s 2021 policy that entitles every student in Grade 5 and up to a school-provided Chromebook. No longer can the phone be defended as an academic necessity for device have-nots.

Meanwhile, attitudes are shifting. While in the past, the most vocal parents were those insisting on their children’s right to carry phones in school, Ms. Chernos Lin says that in the wake of a pandemic that saw kids spending unprecedented amounts of time on screens, parents and teachers are now far more concerned about the negative impact phones and social media are having on kids’ educational performance and overall well-being.

And a growing body of research is bolstering those concerns. Studies from around the world are reaching similar conclusions: that cellphones in schools compromise learning, shorten attention spans and reduce education outcomes, and that teens’ heavy engagement with social media correlates with increased depression, aggression and even changes to brain structure. Last summer, UNESCO published a 547-page report that found while cellphones can enhance the learning experience, care must be taken to reduce loss of focus and other damaging effects of phones in the classroom.

But what would an effective ban look like, and will it sell at the TDSB?

“Any policy on devices should respect the professional judgment of the teacher,” says Michelle Teixeira, the president of the Toronto chapter of OSSTF, the Ontario high-school teachers union, adding that her members would not support an outright ban. Ms. Teixeira says what’s missing from the current practice is “follow-up”: consequences for students who don’t follow the rules. At the same time, she is adamant that teachers should not be asked to take phones away from students, knowing that they are “affecting the chemicals in their brains.”

In other words, teachers are scared, and administrators can’t be relied on to back them up. And therein lies the problem: that cellphones are more powerful than the authority figures who are supposed to be regulating them.

Many adults – educators included – can’t control their own use. In the largest global study of cellphone use, published last November in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, a third of adults around the world were found to qualify as addicted.

“Most policies should be left up to teachers, because they know their audience,” says Prof. Westheimer, who taught in the New York public-school system before entering academia. “In this case, it’s different.” Were he to be crowned education czar, Prof. Westheimer says he would ban phones entirely.

Many independent schools have done just that, insisting that phones remain in lockers for the duration of the school day, and a small but growing number of public schools in this country are doing the same.

And some teachers are going it alone. Étienne Bergeron, a high-school teacher in Warwick, Que., prohibits cellphones in his Grade 8 and 9 classes, and in the “laboratoire créatif” that he set up in his school, which is full of computers, 3-D printers and board games. In the lab, Mr. Bergeron teaches students to design, code, animate and compose music for their own video games. “I’m all for technology,” he says, “but the school should be bringing it to the kids, not the other way around.”

As of January, Quebec’s Ministry of Education is compelling schools to restrict the use of phones in classrooms, but for Mr. Bergeron, it’s not enough. Last fall he launched a petition with the Assemblée nationale, pushing for a complete ban on all personal electronic devices, in all parts of the school.

“It’s willful blindness,” he says of the school system’s tolerance of cellphones. “Where are the adults?”

Ms. Chernos Lin is about to find out. Assuming that her motion passes at the next meeting of trustees on Jan. 31, the board will set to work, collecting opinions from students, staff, parents and experts, and surveying best practices from around the world. Then it will try to craft a coherent policy before turning it over to TDSB staff to work out the nuts and bolts of implementation.

A long journey, and an important one. “I think we have to set the stage for a different classroom experience,” she says. “We’re talking about a major culture shift.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UNESCO's report on technology in education recommended a universal ban on cellphones in schools. The report found that while cellphones can enhance the learning experience, care must be taken to reduce damaging effects of phones in the classroom. This version has been updated.

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